REGION - The geographical area that includes Ayer, Devens, Groton, Shirley, Harvard, Pepperell, and Townsend is rich in rivers, woods and wetlands, prime mosquito-spawning country. But in spite of growing public-health concerns about the diseases mosquitoes carry, only two of the communities, Ayer and Devens, have spraying programs.
"I met with the Groton Board of Health last year, but not Harvard, Shirley, Pepperell or Townsend," said Tim Deschamps, director of the Central Massachusetts Mosquito Control Project (CMMCP). "My understanding was it's a cost issue. We're a state agency and communities can opt in or out, but if they join, an assessment is withheld from their local state aid package. Once that amount was calculated, they didn't feel the local budget could support it at the time."
Deschamps said communities are assessed on the basis of size. A town such as Pepperell, for example, which covers about 23 square miles, would be charged more for membership in the CMMCP than Ayer, which measures roughly 9 square miles. Membership, however, entitles a municipality to more than spraying, and spraying is targeted and administered in response to resident requests that must be approved by the local government.
Deschamps said the state has done no aerial spraying in more than three decades.
"Spraying does vary from year to year," Deschamps said. "Generally, we spray when a resident asks or we know the virus is active in an area. The amount varies.
Whether communities join the CMMCP or not, the agency is constantly promoting its public-health message, urging people to dump standing water on their property, a prime breeding ground for mosquitoes, to apply insect repellant before going into the woods, and to wear long-sleeved shirts and pants when spending time outdoors, particularly at dawn and after dusk.
"Our program is flexible," Deschamps said. "We provide services that residents determined are necessary. We can offer larvae control and other techniques."
In some communities, however, residents are opposed to using any chemical pesticides to control mosquitoes. Harvard Town Administrator Tim Bragan said for years townspeople have rejected any use of chemicals to destroy mosquitoes, worrying about the effects on "humans, animals, and the ecosystem."
That position appears to be changing, albeit slowly, he said, given growing publicity about West Nile and EEE, diseases which can be fatal.
"I believe it has changed somewhat, although the Board of Health has not brought it forward and the town hasn't voted for mosquito control," Bragen said. "There's no strong opposition, although more and more people are concerned about disease and mosquitoes."
Still, objections to using pesticides, even in small amounts, remains strong.
For example, last year Harvard voters rejected a proposal by the Board of Health to place larvae traps inside storm drains.
"It is an issue and there are people who feel differently," Bragan, the town administrator, said. "Some want it. Some don't. But the town voted against putting cakes in the storm drains to stop the larvae, something minimal, similar to what people use to clean their toilets."
Andy Sheehan, the town administrator in Townsend, said spraying for mosquitoes has "never been a topic of conversation" in his community during his three years on the job.
"Many years ago, I worked in Chelmsford, Westford and Lowell, and there was prominent discussion," Sheehan said, adding that his community, with its wetlands, swamps, woods and high number of horses is a mosquito breeding ground.
"I think it's just that people are used to it. It's a community that doesn't like to spend frivolously and concern hasn't risen to the point where the town wants to make an investment," Sheehan said, adding that parents have grown accustomed to "spraying down" their kids with insect repellant before sending them out to play.
Two rivers, the Nashua and the Nissitissit, run through Pepperell, and the town is said to have the highest number of horses per capita in Massachusetts. But there have been no public discussions about spraying for mosquitoes.
"In my three-and-a-half years here, the Board of Health has said nothing about spraying," said Town Administrator John Moak.
Despite "a lot of moving water," rivers, brooks, wetlands and a lot of horses," Moak said, residents seem more interested in spending money on conservation and land purchases than on mosquito-control services.
"We're a conservation-oriented community. We've always been committed to (saving) open space," he said.
In Shirley, the town has not sprayed for mosquitoes in at least a decade, maybe longer, said town employee Pam Callahan. "It's common sense that you get rid of standing water and people are spraying down their kids," she said.
But there are no signs posted at playing fields to remind the public. And Callahan speculated that money may be the reason the town hasn't joined the CMMCP.
"I haven't had an issue, even with a brook in my backyard," she said, adding that her son uses insect repellant and tucks dryer sheets into his baseball cap to ward off the bugs when he's working outdoors.
Ayer Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand said residents and community groups have taken advantage of the town's membership in the CMMCP.
"Selectmen Luca and Hillman have called, and last year before St. Mary Church had an evening event outside, the town authorized spraying," Pontbriand said. "But the reason the town joined was not just because of spraying. They also trap and test mosquitoes for West Nile and EEE. We haven't had issues here, but we support public education, research."
The community of Devens, the former military base now under the state's jurisdiction, is in its second year as a member of the state's spraying program. Tom Kinch, vice president of the Joint Boards of Selectmen, which represents Devens, Ayer, Harvard and Shirley, said a resident who lost a family member to EEE wanted the community to join CMMCP.
"It was a little bit of a struggle," Kinch said. "There were some for it and some against it."
But in the end, the community signed up, knowing that "if we needed to, we could back out," Kinch said.